The Forest: Winter

Winter

Winter fell mid-November, in a deep blanket of silent white that coated camp and forest alike overnight.  When the sun shone, it would send blazing lights of cold white into a men’s eyes, and glint in icy tones from metal where it lay uncovered.  Ice gathered at the eaves of the camp buildings, and on the trees, in clusters of cold spears that hung like the Sword of Damocles over anyone passing underneath.  The wind would pick up every now and then, sending drifts sifting across the road, and blasts of snow down uniforms and coats that left the men cringing and shivering in their clothes, and ice-laden tree branches clacking like shutters left open.

For the most part, it was a slow season for the men.  They had managed to stockpile a fair amount of meat from hunting, and grain either grown in small fields outside of the camp, or bought and shipped in from Bialowieza, and further, from Warsaw.  You couldn’t cut trees in deep cold – the wood was stone-hard – and laying rails would be just as futile, the ground unyielding.  There were days the mill would run, in order to catch up to the previous season’s cutting, but for the most part, aside from drills and the day-to-day, it was quiet.

Aleksy stood outside of the barracks and smoked, curls from his pipe drifting upward, and tugged then torn by the gentle but persistent breeze that seemed to always blow around the camp.  He huddled down into his wool jacket, and tried not to shiver.  He would’ve just lit the thing inside, but he hated the way a smoke-filled room would make your eyes burn, so he chose the lesser of two evils.

Guilt gnawed at him.  Just a little, but it was enough to make him turn it over in his head, like a knot, and worry at it, trying to untangle the feeling from where it lay with the others, and straighten it out.  He didn’t like it, that feeling.  He had spent a good portion of his life feeling guilty over one thing or another – first, the death of his father, disappointment from his mother when he didn’t make it into university, and then his failure to make enough to support his family without having to join the army.  Not that he’d had much choice in that.  Oskar was just one more piece of cordwood to add to that stack.

There had been a huge fuss when Aleksy had brought him back that day in October, bleeding, and out of his mind.  The medics had seen to him right away, and Stonebird himself had come down to see them.  Aleksy had been questioned, and then questioned some more, and he was thankful Oskar hadn’t seemed able to speak, so no one was able to refute his story that a wolf had attacked the man.  When it was over, and Oskar was sedated, and Amsel was satisfied, another shock came to Aleksy.

They had put him up for a commendation.  Valor, or some such.  He supposed those were hard to come by on forestry duty, and he was proud for a moment, until he realized he had lied, no matter how unbelievable the truth.  It was just one more piece to add to the guilt pile.  There was also the matter of Oskar, who had to be force-fed liquids and some food blended into a disgusting concoction of runny paste.

It took almost two weeks, and Oskar snapped out of it.  Sat up in his cot one day, and asked for a steak.  Aleksy wondered how true it was, since he hadn’t been there to hear it from Oskar himself, though he wouldn’t put it past the man.  Still, he had been lucky.  Had the snow come a week later, Oskar would have found himself shipping out to convalesce in an asylum.  Aleksy shuddered.  His cousin had died in one.  They were not pleasant places, disease and insanity rampant.  He doubted Oskar would have made it through that, regardless of his claims of being as healthy as a horse now.

He felt relief that Stonebird had decided Aleksy’s story was good enough, and Oskar seemed content to keep the events to himself.  Still, he felt responsible.  If he had been quicker with the rifle, a faster runner, or just plain more observant, they never would have found themselves in that situation in the first place.  Oskar didn’t seem to mind, though.  As it was, the man seemed downright cheery.

The door opened behind him, and Aleksy turned.  Oskar stepped out, the sounds of men chatting inside cutting off as the door closed.  Speak of the Devil, Aleksy thought, and shivered a bit harder.  He never had been in love with Polish winters.

“Good news, brother.”  Oskar nudged him with his shoulder, and lit a cigarette.  The smoke coiled around his face, and Aleksy could smell the sulfur from the match.  “Sounds like you’re getting that medal, after all.  The brass decided what happened to me was enough proof for them that Moser had a run-in with wildlife, and enough proof you saved my life”

Aleksy grimaced around his pipe stem, and looked at his friend.  He looked better.  After he had been brought back, Oskar had run a fever for five days, one that seemed catching.  Aleksy remembered the medics and several of the support staff getting sick during that time, none worse than Oskar, though.  It made sense; they all bunked together, and they were exposed more than most to chills and illness.  Still, it made him uneasy. When the fever had passed, those men had seemed different somehow – nothing he could pin down directly, just different, like someone with a scar you don’t notice until you look directly at it.

He shook the thoughts off, and noticed Oskar was distracted, raising his nose in the air like a dog, as though he were sampling the air.  He caught Aleksy looking, and grinned, as though he were embarrassed.

“Ha!”  He said.  “Hungry.  I swear I can smell the kitchens from here. Say, I’ll trade you a pack of these -”  he held up a cigarette “- for your steak tonight.”

“If we’re having beets again, you’ll have to pry the steak from my cold dead hands.”  Aleksy grumbled.  “I swear, the meat is the only thing keeping me sane.”

Oskar laughed, and clapped him on the back, then headed off toward the mess.  Aleksy watched him go, and tried to ignore feeling that was setting his hair on end.  He watched the other man trod down the slushy road, and as he went, men began to file in from the side avenues, and fall in behind him.  Something about it, like wolves in a pack, formed an icy knot that gnawed its way into his stomach as he watched.

He counted twenty in all, mostly men from the infirmary and post office, though it looked as though there were a couple of officers in the mix as well.  Finally, they turned a corner, all in step, and Aleksy was able to tear his gaze away.  His pipe had gone out while he dawdled outside, and he tapped the bowl on his boot, knocking the dottle loose.  His fingers were numb to the point of being useless, and he really was getting hungry, despite the knot in his stomach.  With a sigh, he turned and went back inside the barracks, to warm up before the dinner whistle blew.

*

Dinner was the usual affair, with a few exceptions.  The wooden building was hot, with men pressed shoulder to shoulder, and steaming trays of food open to the air.  The air was filled with men’s chatter, and Aleksy caught snatches of conversation, bits and pieces about assignments, the food, and speculation about the war that raged.  That war seemed a thousand miles away, too far for worry from the middle of a forest.

He trudged through the line and grabbed his tray, and let the cooks fill it with stew and vegetables and a hard biscuit.  Inside, he did a little jump for joy.  No beets.  When it was full, he made his way over to the trestle tables and sat down at the nearest one with an opening.  He looked around for Oskar, but didn’t see him in the press of men.  Another glance confirmed the other men he had seen joining Oskar weren’t present, either, and he wondered where they could be.

He shrugged mentally, and wrote it off.  He wasn’t the man’s keeper.  They probably had an early duty shift, or a poker game.  It wouldn’t be unlike Oskar to get up to something of the sort.  Someone jostled his elbow, and he dropped his fork, the food spilling down his uniform.  He cursed under his breath as the man passed, but didn’t raise a fuss.  These things happened.  He finished eating, and stood to go, and found himself face to face with another man.

The man was roughly five-foot ten, and swarthy.  Aleksy didn’t recognize him.  Sweat stood out on the man’s forehead, and day-old stubble sprouted on his neck and cheeks.  His eyes were the too-bright brought on by a fever, and he stared a hole into Aleksy.  He growled, low in his chest, as though he were a dog sending up a warning, and Aleksy took an involuntary step back.  The man eyed him one last time, as though coming to a decision, and shoved past him.  As he passed, Aleksy noted a cuts on his cheek, by his ear, and the back of his neck.

When he left the tent, and the chill air and the knot in his stomach hit him, Aleksy wondered just what the hell was going on.

*

Sirens in the night woke him, somehow deep and shrill at the same time, ripping into the night like claws in the dark.  He started from sleep, and sat bolt-upright in his bed, the sheets pooling around his middle as his mind tried to make sense of what that sound meant.  It came again, tearing into the silence, and he moved to dress, throwing on his uniform as quickly as possible.  He heard movement in the dark, and noticed other men were doing the same, some more successfully than others.

He finished, and grabbed his rifle, and followed three of his bunkmates through the door.  Outside, the snow was a sheet of pure, dazzling white, thrown into brilliance by the floodlights surrounding the camp.  The siren continued to wail, and he ran to the nearest gate, his mind still racing as it tried to make sense of what was going on.

It couldn’t be the war.  There was no way the French or the British had pushed this far inland.  A raid from the Russians, maybe?  He tried to focus on sounds outside of the siren, but try as he might, he couldn’t hear a single gunshot.  No, then.  So, what?

He reached the guard shack by the gate and slowed.  The gate itself was thrown wide, and the snow churned into a muddy slush.  The ground below the snow had been torn up in places, as well, and a part of him wondered what could do that in the middle of a deep freeze.  In other places, the snow and slush had turned a deep crimson.  His eyes followed the red, spilled and splashed like paint, and found the trail led to the guard shack.

The sounds of running footsteps were close enough he could notice them even under the siren, and he glanced over his shoulder.  Two of the men from his barracks had caught up, and were staring at the mess by the gate, as though unsure what to do.  He flashed them hand signals – talking was going to be useless in the noise – flank, support – they nodded, and moved to follow instructions, rifles at the ready.  Alesky took a breath, and moved toward the guard shack.

The door was thrown wide, and he moved in slow, in a firing stance, in case anyone were still in there.  The blood was thicker this close to the shack, and his footing became slippery.  It looked like someone had expended gouts of gore, and he wasn’t expecting a survivor.  He rounded the doorway, and stepped inside.

The smell punched him in the nose, copper and offal, and he had to choke back the vomit that threatened to erupt from his throat.   What was left of the man who had been on guard duty made it debatable that it had ever been a man, and not just a chunk of meat.  His legs were missing, and his insides decorated the floor like an offering.  One arm had been tossed through the back window, and his head lay where it had rolled from the body, under the small counter in the back, where the guard would sometimes take his tea or coffee.  He caught a glance of the name on the man’s uniform – Conrad.  His guts churned again.

Someone shouted to ask if he was okay, and Aleksy took the chance to step out and gulp lungfulls of fresh air.  The cold felt good for once on his skin, and he while he gathered himself, he waved the all-clear to the men backing him up.  After a moment, he went back inside, holding his breath,  and tripped the alarm to ‘off’, and then slipped out.

When he stepped out the second time, he noticed there was a good group of men gathered at the gate, everyone who wasn’t infirm, dead, or too slow to make it out, and they were waiting.  The crowd parted, and Stonebird came through, dressed in his wool coat and long johns.  He turned for a moment to wave the onlookers off, and approached Aleksy.

“In hand, private?”  He asked.

“Yes, colonel.  It’s a mess, though.”

The colonel took a moment, and looked at the gate, then toward the guard shed.  He walked over, and peered in through the door.  Aleksy counted a good three-beat before the man came back.  When he did, his eyes glinted, flints in granite.

“We’ll find who did this.  You did well.  I’ll have a clean-up crew out here tonight.”  He paused, and seemed to consider Aleksy.  “I’m impressed.  Either you’re taking a liking to this life, or someone has plans for you.  Good job, corporal.”

He patted Aleksy’s shoulder, and turned.  Aleksy watched the man walk away, the cold seeming to bother him no more than the scene in the shack.  He stood there in the snow for a moment, and wondered what had happened here, and decided it was a mystery for a time when he wasn’t jacked up on adrenaline and fear.   He started for his own bunk, even as men in bulky overalls, and carrying plastic bags and buckets of soapy water passed him.

It wasn’t until he was lying in his own bunk; staring up at the springs above him did he realize he had been promoted.  Then another thought occurred to him, and he realized Oskar had never returned.

He didn’t sleep well that night.

*

Three more men disappeared in the next two weeks, each on patrol, or hunting.  The only evidence found of them was a red mess in the snow, and prints, like those of a barefoot man.  Oskar didn’t return, and as rolls were called, men seemed to be slipping away every day.  Aleksy began to worry.  He knew he should have fired when he saw the thing in the forest, should’ve done anything to stop Oskar if he couldn’t stop her.

Nights worried him the most.  When he slept, it was more often nightmares than not, of men made ruin and screaming alarms that brought the Reaper and the woman with the black teeth.  Worse, when he lay awake, staring up at the empty bunk above him, he knew that out there, was red death stalking the forest.

*

The days passed, slipping by like a knife through flesh.  Aleksy would see the men who had kept company with Oskar, still walking in their pack.  They had been joined not long after by the man who had nearly confronted him in the mess hall.  Aleksy wondered who their alpha was now.  He decided he didn’t want to know.

He found himself with a few more responsibilities since his promotion.  Most of it was routine inspection, PT direction, and clerking for Moser’s replacement, a Sergeant by the name of Kocher.  There were times he had to pick up the slack as well, which meant longer duty shifts if a man was detained elsewhere, or if they were short, which they were more often than not.  The illness was taking men as it saw fit and laying them up for three, four days at a time.  He wasn’t sure he should thank the colonel for his promotion, the more he thought about it.  His pay was bumped up a bit, of course, and he was sure to send the extra to his sister in Warsaw, but there were days, when he stood for sixteen hours in the guard shack, when he doubted the worth of it.

Aleksy was laying in his bunk, staring up at the springs above him, and wondering if there were a way to go back to give his promotion back, when the door to the barracks opened.  He turned his head, and saw the legs and torso of another soldier making a beeline for his bunk.  He slipped his legs to the side, and sat up so he could see the man.  The soldier was a bit taller than most – roughly six foot – with dark hair that was bordering on too long.  His uniform hung on him.  The man was skinny as a post, and likely to stay that way until he reached his twenties.  He came to a stop just short of Aleksy, and stood at attention.

“Sir, the Sergeant needs you to report to the infirmary ASAP.”

Aleksy stood, and pulled his uniform jacket from the locker next to his bunk.  He drew it on, and eyed the private.

“Anything else?”  He asked.

The boy swallowed.  “Uh, no, sir.  Just that he was already yelling for you, like he expected you to be there ahead of him.”

Aleksy cursed under his breath, and dismissed the boy.  He ran his fingers through his hair.  So much for a little rest.  He wondered what the hurry was, and the thought occurred to him that someone under his command had been wounded.  He doubted that – they hadn’t had any incidents since the last hunter had disappeared.  The forest had been quiet.  He pulled on his winter coat, and slipped out the door, trying not to make any noise on the way out.  Just because he had been called up in the middle of the night, didn’t mean the others had to suffer.

Outside, the night was still and cold.  Aleksy spared a glance upward as he began to walk toward the infirmary.  The sky was that severe midnight blue it could only get on icy winter nights, and stars hung there like white fire, paling next to a full winter moon, huge and white and uncaring.  Aleksy shivered and pulled his coat tighter, though he wasn’t sure it was the cold that was reaching into him.  He picked his way across a stark landscape, snowdrifts and buildings thrown into stark silhouettes.  His boots crunched on the gravel, and he thought it a lonely sound.

He passed a sentry or two on his way to the infirmary, their breaths pluming white in the dark.  They nodded or saluted to him.  They knew he wouldn’t come down on them like some of the NCOs about that sort of thing, especially this late at night.  The brass looked on him as an odd duck, but the rumor was they overlooked most of it because he did his job, and did it well.

Somewhere in the forest, a wolf howled, and it stopped Aleksy in his tracks.  It was a long, lonely sound, a wail that spoke of defiance.  After a moment, it was picked up by another, and another, and yet another.  In a matter of seconds, the world seemed to vibrate with the sound, and Aleksy forced down the fear that rose in him.  He knew it was the fear of prey, that flight or flight instinct that had kept cavemen alive when they were the ones hunted.  He forced himself to go on, and was stopped in his tracks when another howl came, closer, louder.

He turned to find the sentry he had just passed, and found the man leaning just inside the alley formed by two buildings.  The ember of his cigarette burned red against the night.  Aleksy got his attention.

“Gather the men you can, and check the infirmary.”  Aleksy said.

The man flicked his cigarette to the side, and snapped a salute.  He paused before going.

“Is everything okay, sir?”

“No.  I don’t think so.”

The soldier turned to go.  Aleksy started to turn as well, to head back to the barracks.  He watched the soldier he had just ordered off fold in on himself and collapse, and Aleksy blinked.  His brain tried to catch up to what had just happened.  Something huge and black streaked by, a musky animal scent assaulting his nostrils.  The soldier that had fallen was bleeding out, quickly, his blood shining black in the moonlight as it spread like runoff.

Another howl sounded, and Aleksy was sure it had come from inside the camp.  The sound snapped him out of his stupor, and he ran, his boots slipping at first in the warm slush the soldier’s blood had made, and then gaining purchase on the dry gravel.   His boots tore into the gravel underfoot, and he ran hard, hard enough to throw short sprays of cold stone behind him as he went.

More howls broke the night, and he could hear screams punctuating them.  His breath came in ragged gasps as he ran, fear snatching his breath.  He turned a corner, and saw another huge shape, as tall as man, and cloaked in wiry fur, bound by, and tear the head off of a soldier who had been stupid enough to try to fight, the man wielding one of the big axes from the lockers.

It turned as he ran by, and he caught a wolf’s snout and large dark eyes staring hate.  Pointed ears lay back on its head, and it snarled.  He could see rows of razor teeth in that mouth.  Its body looked like it had been carved from muscle, and shaped for murder.  The whole thing was covered in coarse black fur that sent off a scent of musk so strong he thought he might retch.  Its arms were long and corded, and its fingers ended in black talons.

He saw it only for an instant, until it saw him and moved on, powerful legs moving it near silence as it ate up ground in great leaps.  That instant was enough to burn it into his brain for the rest of his life, however short that might be.  He uttered a prayer as he ran, and tried to ignore the spot on his leg where he had pissed himself, the wet spot turning to ice in the frigid air.

He turned another corner, and saw the barracks ahead.  The building appeared unmolested, and he wondered how many had managed to slip out, alive, or armed, or both.  He poured on speed, his muscles and lungs protesting.  His heart was beating in odd rhythms, and he had the morbid thought that if he died now, no one would be able to provide for his family.  The thought was snapped out of head by the sound of something coming up on him, fast.  He ran, and slammed himself into the door.

His muscles threatened to cramp as he ripped the door open and threw himself inside.  With another effort made more of will than muscle and bone, he slammed the door shut, and rammed the heavy deadbolt home.  After the guard shack incident, he had convinced Stonebird to have them installed on the doors, and uttered another silent prayer in thanks, to God and the colonel, when the bolt slammed home.

Something huge and heavy hit the door, and it shuddered in the frame.  Dust filtered down from the lintel, and he feared it would split.  Another blow and it shuddered again, but held.  Aleksy breathed a sigh of relief, and backed toward his locker, where his rifle was stored.  The hammering had stopped after the second attempt, but he didn’t trust that to last for long, and he wanted to be as ready as possible.  He turned to go to his locker, and halted in his tracks.  Oskar was sitting on his bed.

Fear and exhaustion crashed into him.  He dropped to his knees, his legs cramping.  He caught himself on his palms, and managed to push himself to a kneeling position, but not before feeling the warm stickiness that coated his hands.  He looked at his palms, and saw in the dim light they were covered in crimson.  He looked around, noticing for the first time men in their beds, each of their throats slit; their bodies lifeless.  Oskar cleared his throat, and Aleksy looked up.

“Rough night, brother?”  He asked.

Aleksy noticed his rifle sitting on the other man’s lap, nearly within reach.  He tried to figure his chances, but his mind refused to work through the haze of adrenaline and weariness.  Instead, he just nodded.  Oskar grinned.

“I know how you feel.”  He placed the rifle next to him on the bed, and stood, walking to the high window in the wall.  He looked out.  “We woke her up, you know.”

Aleksy was staring at the rifle.  He started to inch forward.  Oskar didn’t look back.  “Who?”  He said.  He thought if he could keep the man talking, he might have a chance.

“The Forest.  Marzanna.  We were hurting her, taking those trees, killing her children.  So she made us.”

Aleksy was still inching forward.  He was almost close enough to reach out and grab the rifle.  Oskar turned and looked at him, and he froze.  There was a fierce look in his eyes, anger and a purpose Aleksy hadn’t seen there before.

“I’m not telling you this because I’m some villain in a fairy tale, Aleksy.  We’re friends.  You should not worry so.”

Aleksy reached out, and grabbed the rifle.  He knew it was loaded.  He kept it that way, ever since that bloody night.  He swung the barrel toward Oskar.

“Why, then?”  He asked.

Oskar’s skin began to ripple, like water on a pond, and he began to change, bones popping in loud cracks as they shifted, and muscle building as though a sculptor were slapping clay on a statue.  He started to grow in height; standing almost to the ceiling, and thick patches of fur began to appear in places where his clothes had torn.  When he spoke again, the words came out rough, half-formed around rows of teeth.

“Because there’s nothing you can do about it.  You have no choice.”

Oskar, or the thing that had been Oskar, leapt at him.  Aleksy pulled the trigger.

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